Off the heels of a big time victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, the Northwestern Wildcats enter unfamiliar territory. In his first year as head coach of the men's basketball team, Chris Collins did something that Bill Carmody could never do: beat a team that was seeded 6th or higher in the BTT. Thanks to double figure-performances from Tre Demps, Dave Sobolewski and Drew Crawford the Cats dismissed the struggling Hawkeyes to the tune of 67-62.
But now a bigger challenge stands ahead of Northwestern. TO make it to the BIg Ten Tournament semifinals, they must go through Tom Izzo's Michigan St. Spartans. The bad news for Northwestern is that the SPartans have been a perennial powerhouse in the conference for many years now. The good news (?) for them is that Sparty has had its own share of struggles this season, too. While not nearly to the degree of Iowa, Michigan St. has sputtered since starting the season off on a high note. The consensus No. 1 team in the conference finished third behind Wisconsin and the Big Ten regular season champs, Michigan.
A big reason that the Spartans have struggled so in the final weeks of the season was related to health. Until the final week they had not seen a majority of their opening night starters playing at the same time. And even then, some, like Keith Appling, have not transitioned into the lineup with relative ease. Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson and Appling alike are all integral pieces to this team and as a result of their inabilities to stay in the lineup, it has made for less than stellar times in East Lansing as of late.
If Michigan St. wants to pick up this victory and move onto the semifinal round, they may find themselves benefiting off of the three-point shot. This season the Spartans rank 12th in the country in 3PT FG%, shooting at a 39.5 percent clip from downtown. But, they do so against a Northwestern team that has a pretty darn good perimeter defense. The Wildcats are 36th-best in the country and fourth best in the Big Ten Conference.
For Northwestern, the triad of aforementioned players must continue their successes. All three are within the Top 5 in usage rate for the team this season, and it's Drew Crawford who leads the way as the Wildcats' most significant contributor. The Naperville native is scoring 15.5 points a night on 40.3 percent from the field. Crawford Co. will be big benefactors if Northwestern is to rattle off another upset.
This should be an interesting affair. It will intrigue many to see if Michigan St. can gel as NCAA Tournament time looms, and should Northwester perform at a high level again, the Indy crowd could start to get behind them and give them a bit of an advantage. But, give me the Spartans to pick up this win, at a closer margin than the experts think.
Northwestern 64 Michigan State 69